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Elijah Harper, First Nations leader who brought down Meech Lake, dies at 64

Former politician and honourary Cree Chief Elijah Harper holds up one of two eagle feathers he held during the Meech Lake proceedings, in Ottawa Tuesday, May 20, 2008.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

Rarely can one person change the course of history for an entire country. Elijah Harper did.

In the Manitoba legislature in 1990, Mr. Harper clutched an eagle feather as he blocked the passage of the Meech Lake accord – the agreement that had been negotiated between Ottawa and the provinces to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold.

The scuttling of the deal gave new life to the separatist movement and was the backdrop to ensuing years of tensions between Quebec and federalist forces.

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Mr. Harper died Friday at the age of 64 of cardiac failure due to complications from diabetes.

His wife, Anita Olsen Harper, and his family issued a statement describing him as a wonderful man, father and partner.

"He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word," said the statement. "He will have a place in Canadian history, forever, for his devotion to public service and uniting his fellow First Nations with pride, determination and resolve. Elijah will also be remembered for bringing aboriginal and non-aboriginal people together to find a spiritual basis for healing and understanding. We will miss him terribly and love him forever."

Mr. Harper was educated at a residential school and later studied at the University of Manitoba. He was elected leader of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation when he was 29 years old.

In 1981, he became the representative for Rupertsland in the Manitoba legislature, the first First Nations person in the province to serve as an MLA. In 1986, he was appointed to the Manitoba cabinet as minister without portfolio for Native Affairs, and in 1987, as Minister of Northern Affairs.

But he was best known for his historic role in blocking the Meech Lake accord that had been negotiated by Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The agreement needed to be ratified by the federal Parliament and all of the provinces.

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Mr. Harper and other native leaders opposed it because it did not guarantee rights to aboriginal peoples. So, when Manitoba politicians were asked whether they would give unanimous consent to speed up debate on the accord, Mr. Harper quietly said "No."

That meant the province could not ratify the deal before the deadline. And because Manitoba did not give its blessing to the accord, it died.

"There was no looking back," Mr. Harper said years later in an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2003. "It wasn't done out of being negative, or out of spite, or anything. We were just trying to be recognized for our rightful place in Canada."

Mr. Harper said that he was worried about saying no. Had he not had the support of native leaders and that eagle feather which was found on a trapline by his brother, Saul, he said he didn't know if he would have found the strength.

His long-time friend, Syed Bokhari, said Friday that Mr. Harper had a kidney transplant some months ago and appeared to be improving, but recovery from that sort of operation is always uncertain.

"He was a very important person," said Mr. Bokhari. "Politics aside he was a genuine person. He had a heart and he connected with people."

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Mr. Harper spent much of his final years visiting First Nations, meeting with indigenous leaders across North America, working with charities, and doing international humanitarian work, his family said.

"Elijah's commitment and dedication to asserting and upholding First Nation rights and recognition has helped lay a solid foundation as this hard work continues today," Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement after the announcement of Mr. Harper's death.

"Elijah's drive and actions toward reconciliation," Mr. Atleo said, "will continue to be a legacy for First Nation and all Canadians as we move toward improved and renewed relationships based on mutual respect and recognition – two things he stood firm on in all of his work."

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